Posts about disruption

Content vs. service in media & education

Content is that which fills something. Service is that which accomplishes something.

Content starts with the desires of creators to make things. Service start with the needs of clients to achieve outcomes.

We think of media and news and content businesses. Education, too, runs as a content enterprise.

But shouldn’t both be seen as services?

“Now we can provide students with a course that mirrors our classroom experience,” the provost of Washington University, Edward S. Macias, said last week as 10 universities announced yet another consortium to provide online education. What struck me when I read that was how much it sounded like the early days of newspaper editors facing the web. They tried to replicate what they used to do, treating the net as merely a new means of distribution for their content.

Shovelware. Media did it. Education does it. Since those are the two fields I’m in, I’m finding parallels and lessons in both.

Education at least has some aptitude for thinking in outcomes, as that’s how we’re supposed to measure the success of programs: What should students learn and did they learn it? Still, to be honest, some of this process of determining outcomes is reverse-engineered, starting with the course and its content and backing into the results. (And one unfortunate side-effect of outcomes-thinking, I should add, is the teaching-to-the-test that now corrupts primary and high schools.)

Journalists are worse. I find a disease among students that continues into careers, starting a pitch for a story (or in my program, a business) with the phrase, “I want to…” Playing the curmudgeonly prof, I tell them no one, save perhaps their mothers, gives a damn what they want to do. The question they should be asking and answering is what the public needs them to do.

Outcomes.

If journalists started with outcomes, they’d measure their success not by unique users or page views or other such “audience” metrics adapted from mass media. They’d measure their success by how informed the public becomes: Did the public find out what it wants or needs to know because of what we’ve done? Is the electorate better informed? (How’re we doin’ with that?) Do New Jerseyans know where to find gas in a crisis? Today when we do research about news “consumers,” we ask them what they think of our products. Shouldn’t we ask them instead what they didn’t know and now know? If we want to reverse-engineer journalism, we need to start with a standard for an informed public and then examine how best to achieve that goal. A more informed public will not always come as the result of articles — content. It will also come via platforms where the public shares what they know without mediators (i.e., media) as well as data and analysis of data, with journalists trying to add value where they’re most needed.

If education were truly constructed around outcomes, it would start with researching the skills and knowledge students need to meet their goals — whether that is a job or an expertise — and then determine the best ways to accomplish that. And that won’t always come from delivering content in the form of the lecture, time-honored though that may be from the days of teachers reading scarce, scribal texts. I’m beginning to rethink journalism education that way: starting with outcomes, curating curricular materials, making all that open, then adding value for some students in the forms of tutoring, certification, and providing context for how tools and skills are used: service.

When we think of ourselves as services, then we strive not to own products but instead to add value to a process. When we provide service, we become more accountable for the outcomes our clients achieve. (When a teacher gives every student in a class bad grades, it’s the teacher who’s failing. When a community is ignorant, it’s the journalists who are failing.) How much better it would be to architect these industries — and they are industries — in reverse, giving clients the ability to set goals and then providing marketplaces of competing means by which they can meet those goals.

I went to an unfortunately off-the-record conference recently at which I asked a long-time leader in education and the founder of an online education startup about the fate of degrees. The long-timer said that from the moment IBM starts hiring engineers when they can show certificates of completion for some set of online courses, the degree will fade.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that is the way the new online startups are built, so far. They deliver courses: content. That’s understandable. It’s phase I of a process of transition: we take what we know and try it out in the new setting, as media have done. These education startups are also searching, as media have done (and still are), for a business model. Coursera is free but promotes its top-tier universities (and might sell a bunch of text books for profs). Udacity wants to make rock-star profs, I think. 2U is charging $4,000 a course for credit (!) in small classes; it’s the anti-MOOC. The University of the People has a mission to educate worldwide masses for free.

Just as I hope that education learns from the disruption of the news business, Clay Shirky hopes it learns from the disruption of music. For much of his post, Clay sees online education the way various of these enterprises do and the way I did when in What Would Google Do? I imagined a distributed Oxford/Cambridge system of international and digital lectures and in-person and local tutors.

But then, as is Clay’s habit, he noted what I think is a key question from these startups: “Meanwhile, they try to answer some new questions, questions that the traditional academy — me and my people — often don’t even recognize as legitimate, like ‘How do we spin up 10,000 competent programmers a year, all over the world, at a cost too cheap to meter?’” That was the same question put forward in what I still think of as a seminal meeting held by Union Square Ventures in 2009 called Hacking Education: They set the goal at making the marginal cost of education zero. That is what these MOOCs are trying to do. If they succeed, then education suddenly scales (and we stop bankrupting our children’s future).

Back again to the media parallel: The marginal cost of gathering and sharing information is already approaching zero. That’s what scares the media industry, built as it is on selling a scarcity called content. At that same off-the-record business conference last week, I heard one media executive say that his industry’s goal is soley to “protect the value of content.” That’s what the copyright wars are over. That is what is beginning to scare universities.

But what’s really scaring them is the the shifting value of content versus service. Google is a service. It delivers and extracts value through knowledge of its users. It doesn’t want to own content, only learn from it. Its highest aspiration is to intuit our intent and deliver what we want before we’ve even said it. Service. Media are factories. They gain value from selling content to customers they don’t know. Products. There’s the real conflict.

I ask us — in journalism and in education (and in journalism education) — to aspire to being services. That requires us to start by thinking of the ends.

The (continuing) institutional revolution

I just read a fascinating book by Douglas W. Allen, The Institutional Revolution, which attempts to explain England’s transition from its apparently illogical early-modern institutions — aristocracy, purchased army commissions, lighthouses, private roads, even dueling — to modern institutions. And today, we see many of those institutions challenged.

Allen, an economist, argues that in a period when nature — weather, mostly — had a controlling influence on the work of state, and before authorities had reliable measurements — synchronized clocks, the ability to navigate to longitude, standard units of length — there was no way for the crown to measure the performance of its agents, to “distinguish between shirking and sloth, on the one hand, and chance, on the other.” So they proved their trust through investing what he calls hostage capital: building large estates, sending daughters to the court, buying army commissions in hopes of earning spoils of war. New means of measurement, he argues, opened the door to more sensible and effective management structures. “[P]rogress,” he says, “has been often little more than the removal of randomness in outcomes.”

I’m fascinated with Allen’s examination of society’s institutions — as organizations and as sets of rules — as they adapt to or are made extinct by new technologies. He points out that the transition to modern democratic institutions and bureaucracies was slow and syncopated. “As a result,” he writes, “throughout the Institutional Revolution numerous circumstances would have existed where the old institutional apparatus was inappropriate for the new order of things. This mismatch would have acted as a brake on economic growth…. [T]echnical innovations by themselves created institutional problems at the same time they solved engineering ones. Because the institutions took time to adjust, the full benefits of the technical changes took a long time to be felt.”

Sound familiar? Allen does not attempt to extrapolate to today — and perhaps I should not. But he does suggest that “an institutional reexamination of the Industrial Revolution” could “help modern economists in their policy recommendations on matter of current economic growth and development.” (Or a lack thereof.)

I wonder how inadequate — or doomed — our institutions are today in the face of new and disruptive technologies, including — to echo Allen — profound new means of measuring behavior (which upends, for example, advertising, not to mention tracking government performance through its data). It’s that kind of question that gets me in the most trouble with people I’ll call institutionalists, who defend legacy institutions — journalism, media gatekeepers, the academy, government, et al — against the disruption I sometimes welcome. See, for example, Andrew Keen. But I’m not killing these institutions, merely asking uncomfortable questions about the continued viability — without, of course, any answer to the question: What will follow them?

* Is the institution of journalism adequate to our new needs and knowledge?
* Was copyright as an institution made obsolete when copying cost nothing?
* Are modern politics incurably corrupted by money? (To answer that question, listen to this episode of This American Life.)
* Are our schools designed to turn out managers in the industrial age — human widgets made to make widgets, all the same — instead of the innovators we need, who are more likely to succeed?
* Is the firm — or at least part of its raison d’être — outmoded by the ecosystem?
* What is to become of the untrusted bank? Surely it cannot survive as an oxymoron.
* Can our capital markets still reward only growth when technology produces efficiency instead?
* Haven’t our health-care institutions foundered completely attempting to deal with the cost of their success: greater longevity and thus more ailments to treat?
* What becomes of our notion of nations when we can find, form, and act as publics around their borders?
* Whither capitalism?

Allen sheds no light on what could come next, nor could he or anyone. Instead, he offers a means of analysis. “[I]n the Darwinian struggle between nations, firms, and individuals,” he writes, “societies are driven to find institutions that get the job done under the circumstances faced at the time.” The issue for society is not affection or disdain for an institution and its traditions but the task at hand. Wishful thinking will not preserve the power of unnecessary old institutions nor make new ones. “Institutions are arrived at in many ways, often by accident or by trial and error.”

And so we have begun the process of negotiating new norms and building new institutions, while seeing whether incumbents can adapt. In the face of social services and the means to speak and share and connect anyone to anyone anywhere anytime, we are trying out new norms of privacy and publicness, etiquette and rudeness. Governments sense the threat of the internet and try to control it — under the guises of piracy, privacy, decency, security, civility — and contrary forces use the net to challenge their power. Journalism, publishing, and education face new, more efficient competitors. #OccupyWallStreet demarcated battle lines between the 1% — the modern aristocracy — and the 99%. As the aristocrat’s of Allen’s early modern period traded in social capital, so do we today, though we constantly recalculate its source and worth. Just as early modern roads were first maintained and run privately, so today are our early digital roads privately owned, and we are negotiating whether that is best for society. (At the start of the 19th century, Allen says, commerce and civic services “demanded that the roads ‘accomodate the traffic, rather than the traffic accomodate the roads.’” That is our battle today, eh?) Prior to the Institutional Revolution, labor was a matter of master and servant; will the current relationship of company and employee continue? And on and on.

In his conclusion, Allen writes:

Life is filled with examples of institutions that get the job done. Look around. Grand and broad systems such as ‘the rule of law’ and written constitutions exist, as do firms, churches, tribes, universities, societies and clubs, aid agencies, professional associations, unions, consumer’s groups, political parties, condominiums, cooperatives, and so on. But many more informal examples abound of social systems that can be just as binding and often more interesting: families, friendships, social networks, peer pressures, customs, social norms, mores and religious values, and the like. All of these social factors — these collections of economic property rights that affect an individual’s scope and ability of decision making — work together to make people behave a certain way: it is hoped in order to create a community that is prosperous, regenerating, and competitive. Not all societies are successful at achieving this end and often institutions are chosen that fail to meet the regularity of behavior that is desired. Stagnation is common for a period of time, but in the competitive environment of institutions, successful one often win out.

That is why I celebrate the competition.

Mapping new opportunities in technology and news

At CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism, we believe technology provides many still-untapped opportunities for news. So we commissioned Dr. Nicholas Diakopoulos to research and map that territory. He came back with a very good and readable paper and with an exercise/game to help media folks find that opportunity. We’re offering that game to journalism schools and media companies.

Here is Andrew Phelps’ report on the research at Niemanlab. See my longer post about the effort here; see Nick’s paper here as PDF, here on Scribd.

Online News Association members: Nick and my CUNY colleague Jeremy Caplan have volunteered to run brainstorming sessions at this year’s conference. So please vote for their session here. We’ll bring lots of games to give to participants. You can also email us to ask for them here (but — as with anything free — supplies are limited!).

Says Phelps: “The paper is high-concept but short, and everyone who wants to reinvent journalism should read it…. Breaking down the problems makes solutions a lot more attainable.” That’s the idea.